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Interview with author, Dr. Deepak Chopra.

Aired February 17, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



DR. DEEPAK CHOPRA, DOCTOR AND AUTHOR: That power comes from the field of your inner being.

-- entire universe, with all its forces --

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): He's been called a poet-prophet of alternative medicine. The doctor who preaches peace and serenity isn't afraid to speak his mind.

DR. CHOPRA: All doctors - or mostly all doctors - are legalized pill pushers, unfortunately.

SIDNER (voiceover): And he isn't afraid of making a few enemies, either.

DR. CHOPRA: It doesn't matter whether you're vilified or you're put on a pedestal. If you're being ignored, then you're not doing anything important.

SIDNER (voiceover): But, for thousands of followers around the world, the key to happiness could be in his mind, body, spirit movement. Stressing a holistic approach to one's physical and mental well-being.

DR. CHOPRA: What's left is possibilities. What's left is potential.

SIDNER (voiceover): Basing much of his views on Ayurveda, a system dating back to ancient times in the land of his birth.

This week on "Talk Asia", we're with the bestselling author, Deepak Chopra, in India. To talk about politics, celebrities, and the question of contentment that drives us all.


SIDNER: Deepak Chopra, welcome to "Talk Asia".

DR. CHOPRA: Thank you very much.

SIDNER: So, you're back in the country of your birth. What was it like growing up in New Delhi in the '50s?

DR. CHOPRA: It was great. We used to play cricket all the time. And I have great memories of my school and going to the usual thing - you know, that time, our school was run by Irish-Christian brothers. So there was a lot of Shakespeare and English literature and history from an English perspective. And a lot of cricket.

SIDNER: Why did you leave India?

DR. CHOPRA: When I left India, I was at the end of my medical school and, out of the blue, I got a letter from a hospital in New Jersey, in the United States. This was the end of the Vietnam War. All the American doctors were in Vietnam or in the army. There was a huge shortage of physicians in the United States.

So, medical students from countries where there was good education were being recruited. The problem was, India did not want us to go, so we had to go to Sri Lanka to do our exams. And then, they restricted us from going by giving us only eight dollars in foreign exchange.

But I had an uncle in London, and he leant me 100. So I had $108. And that's, as you know, a very lucky, auspicious, holy number. So I thought I should do something really holy with it. I went to the Moulin Rouge and spent it all in one night.


So, when I got to the U.S., I had nothing.

SIDNER: And what happened then? You got to the U.S. with nothing -

DR. CHOPRA: I made a collect call - I'd heard about the system - called a collect call. So I made a collect call to my hospital administrator and I said, "I'm here, but I don't have any money". He said, "Just stay there". And the next thing I know is they pick me up in a helicopter from New York City. And I looked out of the window - saw the Manhattan skyline through a helicopter. I said this must be Disney World - it was amazing.

SIDNER: Your first reaction was, "This is Disney World"?

DR. CHOPRA: This is Disney World. And if it's not, then what is Disney World like?

SIDNER: And going before that, your father and brother are medical doctors.

DR. CHOPRA: Yes. My brother is now the dean of medical education at Harvard Medical School. He's younger than me. And my father was a cardiologist, trained in England. My dad wanted me to be a doctor and he was very, kind of, subtle about it. So, on my 14th birthday, he gave me books like, "Of Human Bondage", Sinclair Lewis' "Arrowsmith", and a couple of others. But the protagonist in all these books was a doctor. And the books were amazing. I mean, they romanticized the world of medicine. So, I went back to him and I said, "I want to be a doctor".

SIDNER: You talk a lot about things that are coincidence or not coincidence. And this whole thing about going to America sounds like a coincidence.

DR. CHOPRA: Totally. But the real coincidence was that I was working - I was doing a fellowship for the very world-renowned endocrinologist, who was then the president of the Endocrine Society. And soon I discovered that, at least that academia that I had joined - was part of, was basically an ego competition as to who won the race. And I was very disillusioned. And one day he asked me a question about something - my boss, who was this famous guy - and I didn't know the answer. I said, "Let me look it up". And he said, "You should have that in your head by now".

SIDNER: What did you do?

DR. CHOPRA: He asked me how many milligrams of iodine did those rats get? And I said it was 2.3 or maybe 2.4, let me check. He said, "You should have that in your head by now". So, I took the whole bag of papers and dumped it on his head, and I said, "Now it's in your head". And I left. And he was enraged. He said, "You've blown your career. You've ruined your life". I said, "Screw it, I don't care". I went to a bar and got drunk.

SIDNER: And what happened after that? I mean, how did you recover from that? What did you go on to do?

DR. CHOPRA: Well, I applied for a job at a rundown emergency room, which was run by a Hispanic doctor and they needed people. I didn't have the skills, but he said he would teach me. So, I went there, and, you know, between shifts I had lots of time to read. I started reading Krishnamurti. I went and followed him.

I got into whole study of consciousness. I met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And suddenly, I realized that there was a world I wasn't familiar with. And it was very captivating, wonderful world of consciousness that we were not aware of.

SIDNER: You lived in India - a lot of people would be surprised that this sort of mind and thinking - this way of thinking - wasn't already in your head.

DR. CHOPRA: It was there. You know, it was there from my mother's side, when I grew up. My father was more secular in his orientation and because of his training. So it was always there. But, you know, in medical school, I got totally bamboozled in my space by the glamour of, you know, sophisticated so-called scientific look at the human body. And I realized that, much, much later, wasn't sophisticated at all.


SIDNER (voiceover): Having found his calling, Chopra finds his voice. Next, the doctor's views on the medical establishment.

DR. CHOPRA: Doctors want to make money. That's the way it is. You know, it's like if you go to a baker, what's he going to sell you? Bread. Go to a surgeon, he'll sell you surgery.




SIDNER (voiceover): Back in the country of his birth for the Jaipur Literary Festival, one of Asia's largest, there's no doubt that Deepak Chopra draws a crowd.

It's in the country that he calls home, the United States, where Chopra draws controversy. His views on modern medicine have, at times, put him at odds with the establishment. He says, when it comes to treating the patient, there is no one solution. And he often looks at the ancient traditions in India for inspiration.


SIDNER: Let's talk about modern medicine or "Western" medicine as compared to Ayurvedic medicine - traditional Indian medicine. Do you consider Ayurvedic medicine "alternative medicine", as many people call it?

DR. CHOPRA: I don't. The kind of medicine that I talk about - I don't call it "alternative", because it's integrative medicine. Because, you know, I believe that, if you have a broken leg, you'd better see an orthopedic surgeon. Meditation is not going to help. Or, if you have pneumonia, you need an antibiotic.

But, on the other hand, I also have realized over the years, that 80 percent of the pharmaceuticals that we use are of optional or marginal benefit. They don't do a thing. That most of the surgery they do is totally useless. For example, in the U.S., we do up to $300 billion of surgery, which, you know, is so common. Coronary artery bypass graft, angioplasty - except for those patients with un-stabilized angina, in the vast majority of people, it increases lifespan by one percent - the life expectancy.

SIDNER: So why do you think -

DR. CHOPRA: And yet people don't know that.

SIDNER: Why do you think they're being done? Is it for money only? Or what's going on?

DR. CHOPRA: 26 lobbyists in Washington for every congressman. The whole system is corrupt. It's full of cronyism, corruption, influence peddling, and power mongering, and money. That's what it is. You know, I'm right now -- in the U.S. I'm part of a process to legislate and amend the Constitution that special interest groups cannot and should not be allowed to donate money to politicians. It's at the root of all evil.

SIDNER: That's a very strong statement.

DR. CHOPRA: Well, we just initiated it. And I'm getting my Twitter followers to say whether they agree with this or not. And until this moment, there's not been one person who said that that's the wrong thing.

SIDNER: Do you think - generally, do you think Western medicine is flawed?

DR. CHOPRA: No. Western scientific medicine - its basic premise is not flawed. It looks at mechanisms of disease and then it seeks to address them. There's nothing wrong with that.

SIDNER: Is the system flawed?

DR. CHOPRA: The system is terribly flawed. It's messed up. But the theory behind scientific Western contemporary medicine is good. It's incomplete, though. Because mechanisms of illness are not the origins of illness, you know? If I know how bacteria multiply and I interfere with that with an antibiotic, that's pretty good medicine. But, on the other hand, I should be asking is, "What is it about this person's life?" - there are 100 people in the room and they're all exposed to the same virus and these guys get sick and these don't.

Or 100 people get cancer and they're given the same treatment, and these people get better, and those don't. Or they're exposed to the same carcinogen - see, life is complicated. It's not so simple that I have a mechanistic intervention and that'll take care of it. It does not. Except sometimes in acute situations.

SIDNER: When it comes to America and the way medicine is practiced there, do you think it's a pill-pushing sort of -

DR. CHOPRA: All doctors, or mostly all doctors, are legalized pill- pushers, yes. They're legalized drug pushers, unfortunately.

SIDNER: And your opinion on that? I mean, why it's happening?

DR. CHOPRA: It's the culture. It's not just America, it's the world. They've been hypnotized into believing in the system that doesn't work. And, you know, there's more suffering - and I'm being really honest and truthful about this - especially at the end of life - nobody dies peacefully at home anymore. They end up in an ICU. They're not prolonging life, they're prolonging suffering. And, you know, you're in a machine all the time. And everybody's in agony. The relatives are in agony because they don't know any better. They're asked to make decisions. They leave the decisions to -

You see, when you've got misaligned interests - here's where the misaligned interests are. Doctors want to make money. That's the way it is. You know, it's like if you go to a baker, what's he going to sell you? Bread. You go to a surgeon, he'll sell you surgery. Period.

SIDNER: But to be fair, everybody wants to make a living.

DR. CHOPRA: Yes, sure, but you know, it's not a system that encourages healing, OK? The interests of the doctor are misaligned with the interests of the insurance company. The insurance company and the doctor are always in a tug-of-war. And the poor patient only wants to get better and doesn't know any better.

So, you know, one of the projects, again, I'm involved with right now is to educate the public on what, really, is important in modern medicine. And lest I sound like all modern medicine is useless - no it's not. For acute illness, it's the most effective thing. For diagnosis, it's the most effective thing. But, you know, if you give an antibiotic to somebody who has a cold, you're doing harm. And we do that all the time.

If you had visibility and transparency, if you have integrity, if you make the choices that align everybody's interests, that'll lead to a real health reform. And I'm hoping that, if Mr. Obama comes back, which I really hope he does -- that he's not going to be worried about the next election this time - he'll do what his heart tells him to do, because he knows all this.

SIDNER: You said that he was basically on life support, though, in one of the articles that you wrote.

DR. CHOPRA: Yes, because he's been so handicapped, with the congress - even the democrats - you know, because all they're worried about is their constituencies and their special interests. So, if he cannot get the support of the congress, if he cannot get the support of his own party for important bills, you know. He had the right intentions for healthcare reform - got bamboozled.

SIDNER: I've got to ask you about Indian politics. Do you follow Indian politics at all?

DR. CHOPRA: A little bit. It's more banal and more comedic than American politics, but it's the same. There's no difference, by the way. It's the same stuff.

SIDNER: Yes. There's been a huge, sort of, uprising about corruption that's kind of come into the public sphere.

DR. CHOPRA: Yes. I've followed that and I think it's a great thing. In a very interesting way, I think that the Anna Hazare phenomenon in India, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street, is part of the collective moral outrage that is coming when the world has become so chaotic and where corruption and cronyism and influence peddling has become the norm. So, you know, outrage wells forth from the collective unconscious.

But that's not enough, you know, the outrage is still rage and it doesn't solve the problem. I think the outrage should be a first step toward saying, "So what's the creative solution?"


SIDNER (voiceover): From politics to entertainment - the doctor, surrounded by stars, reflects on celebrity. And the secret to happiness explained.




DR. CHOPRA: Then he said, "I saw rainbows and sunshine. I saw earth and water. I saw the wind. I saw the air. I saw the infinite void. I saw the infinite consciousness and it had stopped along the way, pretending to be a rose. That's cosmic vision.


SIDNER: Why do you think you've had the success that you have had? In America, particularly? I mean, you also have celebrity followers - people who -

DR. CHOPRA: It's my Indian accent.


SIDNER: Come on, it's got to be something beyond that. Why do you think you've been so successful?

DR. CHOPRA: I think I was the first one, in all honesty, to give a scientific - even though, in the beginning, I was ridiculed and vilified and had all kinds of problems with the medical establishment. But I would say, without being vain about it, that I was the first one to talk about the scientific basis of a consciousness-based understanding of human existence. Which has its roots in ancient India. But the way I expressed it in contemporary language was unique, I think.

SIDNER: Why do you think that celebrities, or those who are very well known, start flocking to you?

DR. CHOPRA: Celebrities, in our culture today -

SIDNER: Stars.

DR. CHOPRA: -- stars, in our culture, today - they're representations of ancient archetypes. Like the Greek mythologies, the Gods, you know? And so, today, if you look at each celebrity - doesn't matter. You know, you look at Princess Diana, she represented Diana, the Greek goddess. You know, Aphrodite, etc. And every celebrity, if you look behind the mask, you'll see they're expressing an archetype that's part of our collective imagination, but also part of our collective yearning.

You know, Michael Jackson was a Krishna archetype. He was ambiguous about his sexual identity, he had both aspects to it - he was an amazing dancer, musician, etc. So, you think, oh - and when I first went to his house, I saw little Krishnas all over. And, you know, of course, I said, "What's that?" He said, "Harry Krishna".

SIDNER: Did that surprise you?

DR. CHOPRA: No, because I understand archetypes. And, you know, people are fascinated with archetypes. And I talk about that as part of my Jungian psychological background, too ,that I'm interested in.

But every celebrity, on the one hand, is expressing a magnificent archetype, and on the other hand, has deep insecurity because the insecurity comes from living up to that image. And what I tell my celebrity friends is "Embrace your insecurities. What's getting you where you are? And learn to live with it. And learn to actually channel it into creative expressions".

You know, when I first met - and I can say this because it's public and she mentioned it herself - Lady Gaga was having interesting nightmares and, you know, very surreal things that were actually a source of anxiety to her. I said, "That's your next set in your next production. Put it right there, you know. Take it out of your subconscious and put it right there on the screen, and you have a magnificent new production". And she did it.

So, you know, that's - I think celebrities these days are modern-day heroes. Unfortunately, they are not, most of them. But they have replaced the heroes of old times.

SIDNER: Don't you think regular people, though, struggle with the same thing? The image that the world knows and they're -

DR. CHOPRA: Yes. Celebrities are just exaggerations of regular people. They reflect all the distortions of - and struggles of humanity. But on the world stage.

SIDNER: Let me ask you, you were friends with Michael Jackson?


SIDNER: Were you surprised or shocked by how he died?

DR. CHOPRA: I wasn't surprised, nor was I shocked. I expected it. His own addiction was perpetuated and initiated, again, by medical doctors. And a cabal of doctors that are totally unethical and they're all in Hollywood. And that's how they define - they create a codependency with celebrities.

SIDNER: Did you warn Michael Jackson that he was really going to be in trouble if he continued doing what he was doing?

DR. CHOPRA: I did, but half the time, when those - You know, Michael never called me when he was in that state. Never. Because he knew I would be upset. So he would only call me when he was sober. And in the earlier years, he was most of the time. But when I knew he was avoiding me, I knew something was wrong. But then he was so good at creating a circle of people around him that nobody, not even his family could get through. In fact, I could get through better than his family.

SIDNER: Let's talk a little bit about how you - some of your critics - and there are always going to be critics, obviously, when you make it to a certain - certain place in life.

DR. CHOPRA: I say, "Be happy when you are being criticized or admired". It doesn't matter. Whether you're vilified or you're put on a pedestal, if you're being ignored, then you're not doing anything important.

SIDNER: I'm going to read one of the sentences from one of your critics. And some of these are from the medical and scientific world.

DR. CHOPRA: Right, right.

SIDNER: Here's one of the, sort of, strongest quotes.


SIDNER: They say about you that you're "a seller of hope, which is based on unscientific imagination steeped in mysticism and cheerily dispensed gibberish".


SIDNER: Are you selling false hope?

DR. CHOPRA: See that - the word itself is an oxymoron. "False hope" - that's an oxymoron. Either you have hope or you don't. OK. So, technically speaking, I'm selling hope. Sure. And what they call gibberish is the most ancient and most profound wisdom tradition in the world. OK? But that's the level of - that sentence reflects the level of consciousness of whoever said that. You know, normally, I don't read that. It's so nonsensical and so banal and so trivial that it's not worth addressing. But, since you asked me, that guy, whoever he is - or that woman - is frozen in an outworn and obsolete worldview.

SIDNER: Do you think that positive thinking can actually physically heal you?

DR. CHOPRA: Positive thinking is over-emphasized. It's very stressful. Have you ever been around a person who's always positive? It's exasperating.

SIDNER: It's very annoying.

DR. CHOPRA: It's annoying. So, you know, I've never talked about positive thinking. Now, it's true that if you're naturally in a state of peace, equanimity, joy, love, compassion - your biology will be very different and very self-repairing. So what we call self-repair in biology, we use the word homeostasis. It is a function of your state of consciousness.

But it's not positive thinking. It's the natural state when you go beyond your ego identity and you radiate a simple, unaffected, humanity. You're not trying to impress anyone.

SIDNER: You have written 60 books.


SIDNER: 65, now.


SIDNER: And you're a doctor and you're - how do you do all these things?

DR. CHOPRA: I don't. It's my body and mind that does. I stay detached.

SIDNER: Oh, come on. Give us some idea of how you stay up so long. I mean, you must be working all the time.


SIDNER: You're even online. You're everywhere.

DR. CHOPRA: I wake up at four. I meditate for an hour and a half. And the rest of the day, I go with the flow. I have no place where I need to get to, so whatever I'm doing is where I need to be.